On Isolation, Anxiety And Startups
“We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.” — Herman Hesse, Siddhartha
This is a story about anxiety and my response to it over the past few months amidst the collapse of a business that I and many other close friends and colleagues worked so hard to see succeed. I’m hoping that I can share my experiences so that others can take solace in the fact that, whatever they are going through, they are not alone.
The past few months have been difficult for me both professionally and personally. Working hard on a new company while you and your collegues watch the walls crumbling around you induces a certain kind of weariness that cannot easily be described. There is no doubt that this has been one of the most difficult periods of my life thus far. As a result, my mind has been preoccupied with a tangled heap of hopes, relationships, dreams and promises that have left me feeling emotionally and physically worn. The constant stress and pressure has meant that I’ve led a life driven by anxiety and fear.
“If the problem has a solution, worrying is pointless, in the end the problem will be solved. If the problem has no solution, there is no reason to worry, because it can’t be solved.” — Zen Proverb
I knew this. We all know this at some intuitive level. And yet, I still let my anxiety take control. I haven’t felt like myself in a long while, I feel like I’ve failed those around me, but perhaps more importantly, I feel as though I’ve failed myself.
Every conceivable thought invaded my mind — “What if I lose my job?”, “What if I’m not smart enough?”, “What if I’m not capable?”. Naturally, thoughts would ebb and flow, some days they would barely be present and other days they would be all-consuming. They would drag my attention away from the task or conversation at hand. I would sit in silence in team meetings and lunches when I knew I should speak up and contribute. I would nod politely while I was out to dinner with my girlfriend, pretending to listen and care, knowing full well that she could see straight through my ruse. I would wake from sleep at 2AM with this unshakeable feeling of overwhelming dread.
The wellspring of anxiety is always the same. Fear of the uncertain. And if there is anything that’s certain in a startup environment, it’s uncertainty. My natural coping mechanism is to recoil and turn my attention inwards, to spend more time with my own thoughts and to push people away. It’s a lot easier this way. I didn’t have to be vulnerable with anyone and I could avoid conversations that seemed too difficult. Needless to say, I continued to feed the negative and fearful narrative that was running on repeat in my brain.
“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” — Gautama Buddha
Shying away from people and your own thoughts is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it makes coping in the short-term much easier. On the other, it makes you feel disconnected and alone even if you spend most of your day with others. I began to feel some of the symptoms of dissociation such as feeling like a detached observer of myself (depersonalisation) and feeling as though everything around me was not real (derealisation). At first these feelings were incredibly frightening, on some days it felt as though I was going crazy.
I don’t think I was fully aware of how disconnected I was feeling until I noticed an incredibly powerful yearning for a deep connection with others, which was strange since I’ve always felt that I had been lucky enough to have quite a few deep and fulfilling relationships. I began to cling to these relationships which only worsened my anxiety. I thought that holding on tightly would solve the problem, but it only made it worse. My ego was present in every conversation, I had to make the other person feel as though it was worth their time to talk to me, make sure they knew I was empathetic, smart, interesting, all of the things we aspire to be.
“Relationships — of all kinds — are like sand held in your hand.
Held loosely with an open hand,
the sand remains where it is.” — Unknown
The real problem with these feelings of anxiety and avoidance is that they keep you from learning and taking action. They stops you from being curious and interested because you’re worried about being judged. They prevent you from deeply connecting with people and being vulnerable because you’re fearful of being abandoned. All of these things led me to also feel disconnected from my own needs and desires. I began to feel like my thoughts were always clouded in a fog of uncertainty and confusion. I couldn’t continue like this, I knew that I had to work towards relating to my anxiety differently.
The process of healing is a long an arduous one, it is not a straightforward path. By no means have I reached the end and I probably never will. We cannot control our thoughts, only our reactions to them. By this token, I don’t think I will ever come to a place where I never feel this way again, however, I am hoping that, with time I will be able to respond more skilfully. Below are a few techniques and ways of thinking that I’ve been working on and attempting to implement in my own life. My hope is that they will help you too.
In today’s world, we don’t give ourselves much time to stop, reflect and just be. Every second of our waking hours are consumed with chats over coffee, TVs, smartphones, apps, audio books, all in an attempt to be more, learn more and do whatever it takes to avoid that intrinsic emptiness that we all feel inside. For me, a daily meditation practice has allowed me to develop a safe space to respond to feelings of fear and anxiety. I prefer a more traditional style of meditation, but I’ve met others who get the same benefits from going for a run or working in the garden. Do whatever you need to to give your mind some time to switch off and disconnect. It won’t make your anxiety go away necessarily, but it will give you a framework with which to relate to the world. The difference between being overwhelmed by anxiety for 2 hours or being overwhelmed for 10 minutes is an order of magnitude increase in quality of life.
The second is letting loving people into your life and letting supportive relationships heal you. One of the biggest predictors of recovery from trauma is the ability to ask for and receive care from others. I am terrible at this, as are most people. We’re taught from a young age not to show weakness and not to be vulnerable, especially in a professional setting. This however causes chronic stress and agitation, it also makes it very difficult to make new friends and develop existing relationships. Relationships are built on the ability to be vulnerable with one another. It is important that we ask for help when we need it. It’s important that we listen to others and not just fixate on our own problems. It’s also important that we expand our concept of connection and understand that by showing kindness, respect and friendliness to all we heal the fractures within us and between us. There is no hierarchy of human worth.
The third is to be incredibly selfish but, at the same time, incredibly selfless. This duality at first seems counterintuitive but in practice, it becomes straightforward. I say “to be incredibly selfish” because of the importance in knowing what you want and following your gut. If you’re always letting others make decisions for you, you’ll never have a positive space to relate to the anxiety. At the same time, it’s important to put others before yourself and view your own existence in the wider context of connectedness. Often, the best way to look after yourself is to look after other people, as long as those people aren’t taking advantage of you and the relationships are not to the detriment of your own wellbeing. It is this selflessness that improves our perceived connectedness to others and makes us feel as though we are part of something greater — an inherent human need.
My anxiety has always felt like an isolating experience and while anxiety and other mental health disorders can have different symptoms for different people, I’m fairly certain I’m not alone. Sometimes, it takes incredibly stressful situations to shine a light on our innermost fears and motivations. I’ve had a hard time lately, but I really wouldn’t change it for the world. Healing is an ongoing process for me, but now, more than ever, I feel like I have the space and the tools to relate to and deal with anxiety ridden mental states. My hope is that with time, the same will be true for you too.
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” — Alan Watts